Is missing school a disaster?

“The loss of these last five days has been a disaster, with the loss of instructional time…and we need to gain back as much (of that time) as we can.” P.E.I. Minister of Education, Alan McIsaac, as quoted during a CBC radio interview which you can listen to here

 

We have accumulated thirteen storm days thus far this school year. Meaning, there have been thirteen non-consecutive days thus far in the school year here on P.E.I. for which school has been cancelled due to this unusually brutal winter we are having in Atlantic Canada (a winter which seems to be equally as brutal in much of the rest of North America as well, I might add). Last week, added to the mix a total of five consecutive days of cancelled classes, stimulating much talk in public and private circles which concern themselves with educational matters. Talk by people concerned with outcomes and expectations. People concerned with time off task and focused in-class instruction. People concerned that ‘students not learning within the four corners of the school walls must then not be learning’. People concerned with the matter that students need to be in school, not whittling their time away doing what kids like to be doing, whatever that might be.

Yes, there have been lots of missed classes. Extreme weather conditions being the reason for such. These weather conditions can and may include blowing snow (thus reducing visibility), snow accumulations exceeding 10 cm, blizzard conditions, freezing rain or poor road conditions (impassable laneways). Fortunately, we have not gone so far here on P.E.I. to sacrifice student safety for the almighty tax-dollar. Or should I say: we haven’t done so often (there was that one day, but that was back in February- we have moved on since then). Thankfully, there would not be too many people here in our parts who would fault the schools for cancelling classes, but there are always a few who believe that classes must be made up. In other words, compensated for. By way of a sacrifice of some sort on behalf of the teachers and the schools. Which is to say, that something has to give. For that money has been invested in student learning; there must be a way of making good on our students’ education. So as to not lose said valuable education to such an unpredictable winter.

It has even been said, as evidenced in the above quote, that missing school is a disaster.

Thus, when school is cancelled to this excessive extent, there are often calls from the public that the School Board and government examine the school year thus giving consideration to whether or not the days allotted to instruction should be extended. Or at the very least, giving heed to the preservation of such instructional time via cancellation of any upcoming scheduled professional development days or other holidays in light of the missed class time. Class time deemed suitably important in that missing such time which would have been spent achieving curricular outcomes and meeting grade level expectations is too great a trade off. Thus, the reason for extending school years, decreasing P.D. days or cancelling holidays.

The debate for me is not the loss of professional development so as to preserve instructional time. If there is a benefit for students and a way to show good will to the public, I am all for that. What bothers me about all the debate and hullabaloo are comments like the Minister’s above which infer that missing school is a disaster (of epic proportions). Which, I would submit, it is not.

What is worthwhile? Knowing? Doing? Learning? And where?*

If you live here on P.E.I., there are a few things worth knowing. One of which is how to survive an ice storm (in which there is a pretty good chance that the power will be lost). Here’s what my kids learned last week about that worthy topic:

  • Board games are just as fun as video games
  • Snow forts are fun and challenging to make
  • Homemade donuts are just as good as Tim Horton’s donuts
  • Reading a book is both challenging and rewarding
  • Charades is a fun way to spend time with your family
  • Fireplaces are both cosy and warm
  • Melted snow can allow one to flush a toilet

 

And low and behold, my kids were not the only students learning last week. I met up with a friend in the grocery store the other day and inquired about a Facebook photo she had posted in which her daughter had rigged up a warming rack and candles so as to cook a can of beans during their family’s foray into powerless living. Her daughter played around with her design until it was just right and she eventually cooked a warm meal for her family using flame and metal. Ingenious. Did a teacher stand hovering over her micro-managing her design? Did someone grab a textbook so as to show her what to do? Was she told she needed to read the theory behind such a contraption first so as to make it work?

 

No. She just did it.  All by herself.  Fueled by her own desire to solve a real world problem related to her lived experience.

 

I do not mean to undermine our elected government officials and their priority placed on schooling. However, I do not share the same alarm with them that missing schooling is a disaster. If innovative, creative thinking is the result of a few missed days, then I say that was time well spent.

 

*Reference:  The questions you found me asking have also been asked by William Schubert (University of Chicago at Illinois)  in his article What is Worthwhile: From Knowing and Needing to Being and Sharing.

A challenge and response: Must we choose between Love and Academics?

I really appreciate my friend for challenging my thinking, as you will come to read below.  I am providing her challenge to my thinking and perspective along with my response to her.  This welcome challenge was issued to my last blog post regarding What is Worthwhile Knowing: A Teacher’s Perspective.  I would readily open any feedback you might have to offer by way of challenge or rebuttal.  Thanks to everyone who reads my writing.  I welcome all your views.  Iron sharpens iron.

To me:

I get where you are coming from- and I agree- students learn more effectively when they know that their teachers care about them. But as a parent I don’t send my child to school to primarily feel loved, he has that from me, from everyone in his life etc- what I send him to school for is to learn and to reach his full potential. That to me is the priority. Sometimes I feel that we are moving too far away from that since there are so many children who aren’t getting the love that they need from their families. But I really feel that we have moved too far. Our academic standards have greatly decreased…students reaching university in 2013 are not as prepared as they were in 2005. We need more focus on the academics….not less. I see it at the university level- our students are not as prepared for higher learning as they were 10 years ago. This is what we should be talking about- because the education system is failing their future learning potential. Sure they feel loved….but they can’t perform simple math or spell….by grade 12….this is a major problem! This is the reality that we need to correct. You may be on a different end of the spectrum being in kindergarten where feeling secure and loved is extremely important….but I don’t think that it is the universal focus of sending kids to school…at some point we have to shift more towards the academic side. I am sad for students who I meet in my class who are very intelligent, but have not been academically prepared to fully access all that they could from university. The education system is failing those kids. My favourite teachers from school are not the ones who made me feel loved….but who stretched my mind and expanded my knowledge beyond what I thought I could know- they pushed me to be who I am today and to them I am grateful.

 

To my friend: I appreciate that you wrote me with your perspective. And I appreciate that we both have different perspectives- unique to our own understandings, backgrounds and situations. It is good for me to be challenged in my thinking- to push myself to understand the ‘why’ behind my writing, of late, about love and care. About curriculum of the heart. It is something I feel so deeply about that at times I need to step away from it- step outside of my own thinking- and examine it with new eyes. New perspectacles, if you will (to use our favorite blogger’s analogy).

You mentioned that you “get” where I am coming from, but I wonder if we can truly ever get something like this. I think we have to believe it. You state that “as a parent I don’t send my child to school to primarily feel loved, he has that from me, from everyone in his life etc.” I am glad that your son has that. Many do not. In fact, it is not the norm to have what your children and my children have for experience. Two parents in the home who are university educated, double incomes, every opportunity. A comfortable lifestyle. Values that support life-long learning and ambitious achievement. These things are not the norm, as you well know.

That being said, I agree that even for those parents sending their children to school who are not in your or my position, those parents still might echo your sentiments: that they aren’t sending their children to school primarily for love. They might even agree that they are sending their children to school for the very same reasons that you state: to further their academics. Widen their possibilities. Further their potential. Whether or not parents are sending their children to school for reasons that reflect your stance or reflect mine, the fact of the matter is this: children and students learn best when their learning is cushioned in an atmosphere of love, care and compassion.

What is love? Am I talking about warm, fuzzy, sweet-talking love that always pleases? Am I talking about feel-good, low-pressure therapeutic love that focuses solely on self at the expense of all else? What is love, anyway- it means so many different things to so many different people. What I am talking when I refer to love in my writing is that which is the deepest emotion known to humankind: something so over-arching, all-encompassing and profound that it permeates our very being. When I speak of love, I am talking about everything that is good in this world which could be then funnelled into our being. So as to inspire, motivate, compel, arouse, encourage, stimulate, provoke and stir up whatever might lie dormant within us. Whatever might lie fallow. Whatever is ready for awakening.

Love as an emotion is often highly undervalued in education. Sure, we embrace it in its place: but it is always put into its box and asked to sit there until it might be of use. It is not always on top of everyone’s list of priorities when it comes to academics.   In fact, love might very well be at the bottom of the list for some, as you have expressed. It is so often undervalued through statements that contend that it is a poor reason for a teacher’s purpose in offering an education to their child. After all, and you are right here: our job as teachers is to deliver curriculum. Teach the standards. Expound the outcomes. We are expected to deliver on the core fundamentals of a solid education: the arts and the sciences. And in doing so, prepare our students for the workforce.

But what if love was the standard by which everything else was measured? What if love made me a better teacher? What if love made my students better students? What if love made people better, just through experiencing it?

What if the love I showed in my care and concern for students then allowed me to, in love, inspire them to have a passion for language, for prose? For nuances in language? For poetry, literature and classical writing?

What if love opened a door to enable me to share with my students a passion for mathematics? For precision and exactness? For reasoning and rationalizing? What if love paved that way?

What if love gave me the inch that could buy a mile? What if love was what every foundation I built upon? What if love was everything? In everything, through everything about everything?

What if love was everything?

Can we ever really know for sure if it was what really made the difference- or not-when we who have always known love are the ones calling for less of it? We who have always had love at our fingertips saying it is unnecessary? When we who are deeply loved, who have always had love at our disposal, are saying it is the drain on academics and learning? Keeping us from excelling? And by what standards, I might ask? Are we really in any position of saying that love isn’t necessary, in such sweeping statements, when we’ve always had enough ourselves? What if your call for less love was the unravelling of that one student who could have been destined for great things. But because love was removed, then became a hardened, bitter being?

Who are we to say?

You are right- love isn’t everything. There is also pain and sorrow. There is hatred. There is always an equal opposing force to everything we know. And I could say that we can teach without love, but then the door is wide open for anything else to move in. Anything else but love. And while you claim you didn’t need love, and I am assuming that you are implying here that some teachers might have adopted stances that were quite the opposite to love: for some students, this would close the door to learning. And quite possibly forever. I am glad this was not the case for you. This wouldn’t apply across the board, however. What works for one scenario might not work for another. But we all need love. We certainly don’t need hatred or ill-will. Nor do we need hardness and rigidity. While learning might still transpire, it does in spite of these qualities. Not because of them. Unlike with love which paves the way.

As for taking that chance- of doing away with love in favour of dry, rigid adherence to the standards: I am not willing to take that chance. So I continue to offer love. And offer learning and opportunity to my students in as passionate a way as I know how.

So, what about academics. We are in the business of learning. How can I the teacher find balance between my call to love and my job to teach? When I offer love, I find that my passion for learning is that much easier to transmit. When I show care, I have won my students’ confidences so that I can then offer instruction. When I value their opinions and thoughts, I find they are stimulated to think above and beyond what I ever dreamed possible. When I open the door, and I know they trust me, I also know they will follow. And sometimes they even lead the way.

Why are students not ready for university, as you have so aptly pointed out? One cannot argue with statistics. But maybe they can offer some plausible reasons for such. My belief is this: I feel that quite possibly we have not offered enough in the way of love. Perhaps students haven’t known the freedom to explore, to climb to lofty heights and ambitions. Perhaps love never paved the way. Maybe students do not know the grace that is compassion-perhaps if they did we would see more students moved towards social justice and outward thinking. Perhaps students have not been shown the generosity that is passion and joy for learning. There might not have been allowances made for outside the box thinking. There are a multitude of reasons for why the stats are what they are.

Perhaps schools have failed our students in not preparing them for university. And perhaps we have also failed in not offering them a curriculum for life in stressing the importance for love to underlie their very existence.

Perhaps if we focused more on love, we might see changes that surpass even our own expectations: for learning, life and love itself.

What is worthwhile: A Teacher’s Perspective

Not long ago, I wrote an article called “What Students Remember Most About Teachers” to which I received a phenomenal response from my readership. I continue to hear daily from people with stories to share about the teachers who made an impact on their lives- hear from those as well who share about the teachers who have chosen worthwhile ways in which to interact and be with their students, in the day-to-day lives of their classrooms. Last week, I received this comment, a comment which stopped me abruptly in my tracks, causing me to consider to an even greater degree the message behind that article I had written. Here is the comment in its entirety:

I’m new to the world of teaching – just finished my internship in a lovely kindergarten classroom. However, at the end of my experience three months ago, one of my students unexpectedly passed away. It has had a profound effect on my view of a teacher, but it has been difficult to put into words how my priorities changed.

This letter explains it.

To me, it is of course important to cover curricular objectives and make sure students are learning and growing. That is what teaching is. However, at the end of the day, the most important thing to me is that my students enjoy themselves and know that they were cared about. Because if, god forbid, it is their last few weeks on earth, I want those weeks to hold as much joy as possible.

I know that’s not quite where you were going with this letter – but it rings true anyway. Thank you.

As I read this teaching colleague’s letter written personally to me, images immediately conjured up in my mind of the horrific days just a little over a year ago whereby I found myself to be in a very similar place as she finds herself now. Because at our school, a sweet little boy just down the hall from me, one grade level up- fell ill and later died on the heels of a busy school week. He was in school Friday, dead on Saturday. No warning. One last picture taken the day before, during Show and Tell, to hold a lifetime of memories. In fact, I sang and played the piano at his funeral. Jesus Loves Me, This I Know. How can one ever forget the image of a small casket holding one so precious, so full of potential and promise. It is a mother’s worst nightmare. And although I was not his mother- nor was I his classroom teacher, I am a mother to four other sweet children whom I held that much more tightly, that much closer because of this tragedy. And teacher to countless others I call my own. I hold these all a little closer, a little tighter, now that I know better. Now that I know more. Because one never comes through an event like that unscathed. Unbroken. It was heart-breaking- words fail to adequately sum up the emotions that were experienced at the time.  Experienced still, for many of us. It affected all of us in our school- and indeed in the surrounding communities as well. Such a profound and senseless loss.

And when one has experienced loss in such a way, I don’t think you ever look again at things in quite so casual a manner. No longer are you asking the same questions, going through the same rote motions. Habitually living your life. Rather, you ask yourself this: if this were my childrens’ or any one of my students’ last day here on earth, would it be a pleasant, happy, peaceful one for them? Would I in any way be a hindrance to them in living out their last moments here on earth with joy and hope? Would I actually be a help, offering them kindness, love, compassion and concern? Would their last day on earth be the best day imaginable, the most fulfilling one possible: and all because I stopped to consider what might be the most worthwhile way in which to spend that day with them? All because I chose to show care and concern over frustration and impatience? Important considerations for teachers to keep in mind. Because when it comes down to it, it really isn’t about the curriculum we teach: it is about the heart with which we teach that curriculum. It’s about the love we show in our words and in our actions.

It’s really about love, when all is said and done.

Donald S. Blumenfeld-Jones poses an important question in an article on curriculum as to what the right question must be for determining curricular studies. In order to get at what is important- what is CORE in terms of schooling and time spent “on task”, one must first ask “What knowledge is of most worth? Or even, “What knowledge can we not do without?” In other words, what is worth giving our time and attention to- our thoughts and intentions towards- in terms of learning.  In terms of mental, intellectual and physical growth?

William Schubert in his article “What is worthwhile: From Knowing and Needing to Being and Sharing” poses thoughts on what is worthwhile in terms of learning. In terms of needing. Experiencing. Doing and being. In terms of becoming. And he extends these thoughts to what’s worthwhile in terms of sharing. In terms of contributing. What is worthwhile in terms of wondering. In other words, what is worth spending our precious time on earth as we live life, from second to second. Minute to minute. Day to day. Year to year.

We only have this one opportunity: what is worthwhile doing and being while we’re at this job of living our lives? Or as teachers, we only ever have the day we are in RIGHT AT THAT MOMENT with our students: we are only ever guaranteed that one day in which we are living. Are we doing our utmost to make that one day the best one possible for our students? As if it could be their very last?

Today, we are on our thirteenth storm day. Meaning, there have been thirteen non-consecutive days thus far in the school year here on P.E.I. for which school has been cancelled due to this unusually brutal winter we are having in Atlantic Canada (a winter which seems to be brutal in much of the rest of North America as well, I might add). Currently, there have been five consecutive days of cancelled classes, stimulating much talk in public and private circles which concern themselves with educational matters. People concerned with outcomes and expectations. People concerned with time off task and focused in-class instruction. People concerned that students might not be absorbing information and skills within the four corners of the school walls, thus they must needs not be learning. People concerned with the matter that students need to be gaining knowledge in school rooms, not whittling their time away doing what kids like to be doing: whatever that might be. There will be calls that extra-curricular activities should be cancelled and that there must not be any wasted instructional time.

But what is really of most worth will never be discussed: that is,  that students need teachers for more than merely instruction. They need teachers because teachers care. Care about them. Care about their person. Care about who they’ve been, who they are now and who they will one day become. Care to listen and to offer advice. Care to empathize and offer compassion. Care in little and big ways. That’s because teachers are interested in students as people- not just as consumers of knowledge. Not just as sponges who must soak up information. Buckets to fill up with important knowledge and skills.  Teachers care about students because intrinsically we believe deep down that what is of worth knowing the most is this: our students.

We want to know our students.

And while we might be taken to task on matters of educational import, matters of the heart are really where it matters. And those matters are what teachers like myself will continue to spend their time on in spite of the call to “time on task”. Because what is of worth your last day of life should ever be in our minds: should be ever compelling us to stop and take heed. We have no idea how long- how much time anyone on this earth will be given. If this were the last day for anyone in my circle of influence, I should hope that the time they spent with me was worth their while.

Was worth spending it with me.

What a precious responsibility we have been given.  May we never take it lightly.

What is of most worth? Is it love or curriculum? Kindness or literacy? Compassion or numeracy? Empathy or time on task? Teaching to the test or teaching to the heart? The answer to each of these questions lies somewhere within us all. It is up to us to answer the questions wisely and carefully.

And the ways in which we answer these questions speak directly to where our heart is calling us.  That is, speak directly to whether our heart is calling us toward love or away from it.

It’s a Hard Knock Life

Three Stories That Prove I Am A Bad Luck Magnet:

1.) We arrived home from our 2014 March Break trek to N.C., U.S.A., pulling in Saturday night at 10:00 p.m. From the minute I opened the van door, I hit the snow/ground running. And I didn’t stop until I had most of the bags unpacked and put away. Things were pretty much back to normal by the time I went to bed that night, minus a suitcase that sat in the hallway upstairs for the better part of a week. Anything that could be stowed or shoved out of the way was, so as to buy me some precious time.

In some ways, it was like we had never left. Life falling back into a rhythm of fast pace hectic mayhem. Such is the busy life we lead. Sunday was church and the Ice Show, which consumed most of the day. Monday was school and meetings and piano lessons. And course readings late into the night. Tuesday was more of the same with the added bonus of a course exam by Skype that night with my professor. Since lunch time was taken up by meetings/preparations (as was more of the same after school), I had made up my mind to go home and make supper then head back into school at 6:30 to finish up the last minute preparations prior to taking the Skype call.

Everything running on schedule, I got supper started and made, and then decided that in order to save time, I would eat later. So I headed into school as planned at just an hour and a half before the exam.

The school was a quiet place to be- no noise and worries. Just peaceful silence. I settled in to read over my papers and print off my notes. When I was ready to leave, I locked the office and got my coat on. I had twenty minutes to spare. Everything was running on schedule. That should have been my first clue.

I was just about to leave the building when I put my hand into my pocket to retrieve the keys, only to discover: I had no keys. No keys. No KEYS???? To say I freaked out is an understatement. And to say that this really wasn’t that much of a surprise is telling the honest to goodness truth as well. I looked up at the clock. There was not a minute to waste. I ran back up to the office to see if I had happened to leave the van keys in the door, but unfortunately had not. I ran back downstairs to see if they were anywhere in my classroom. Not a chance.
I looked near the phone. Nothing. And then, I started to panic. I had no keys and an exam that would now be starting in 15 minutes, thanks to my dim-wittedness and lack of attention. In a moment of clarity, I dialed my Husband’s number and then completely unravelled when he answered the phone.

“I left my keys in the office,” I spluttered. “Come get me.”
“I’ll be right there,” the reply. Sweetest.man.ever. What I ever did to deserve him I will never know. I could almost see him rolling his eyes at me over the phone line. That this was happening to me was certainly no coincidence.
Because of course, these things ALWAYS happen to me.

While I waited for my Knight in Shining Armour to arrive, I desperately dialed my principal to see if I could avoid embarrassment in the morning and have him run out, unlock the office door, and allow me to slink out of the school with my keys in hand. No harm done. No one would ever know the difference. Alas, I could not get through his phone line, try as I might. It just kept running a busy signal.

I paced back and forth, knowing full well that I now had under ten minutes to make it home in time for that exam.

Finally, our truck appeared, barreling down the road; Husband pulled into the parking lot. I rushed over, grabbed the keys and took off in a record-breaking sprint for the van. T minus 10 and counting. I drove home, trying to pace myself and calm down from what could have been a full-blown anxiety attack. By the time I got to our driveway, I had resigned myself to the fact that “whatever will be, will be.”
I arrived home at 7:59. Walked in the door. I put my hands into my pocket, just a natural instinct. A reflexive gesture. And what do you know?

There were my keys. In my pocket. Exactly where I had put them twenty minutes earlier. Isn’t that always the way?

Knock one.

2.) I was loading the laptop in preparation for the Skype call to my professor. Ten minutes into the wait, I realize that maybe I am missing something here, as I am getting no calls. I check my e-mail and find out that my prof has already sent me two messages trying to figure out where I am in Skype-land. Turns out, there are twenty other people with the same Skype address as we have. I didn’t realize that there were that many Brian Gards in the world. Fifteen minutes after our exam is scheduled to begin, I finally clue in to the fact that I am the one to make this call. And so I do.

Knock two.

3.) Every week, we have at least one major liquid spill in our classroom. You’d think I’d learn. You’d think I would’ve bought a mop bucket by now. And you’d think that after a while I would have some sort of a slick system devised. But apparently, this is par for the course in Kindergarten, as I have come to learn. So it was on Tuesday that we had two chocolate milk spills in the span of an hour, causing me to wonder if there is such a thing anymore as powered milk. If so, I am buying shares in the company.

Knock three.

And there you have it.  My three stories that span the perimeter of one day in the life…of a woman with a few hard knocks.  It’s a hard knock life, boys and girls.  But it ain’t so bad as I make it sound, really.

At least I still have my sense of humor.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

What’s love got to do with it, anyway? Got to do with education? Got to do with teaching?
What’s love got to do with it?

Everything. It’s got everything to do with it.

I am delivering a dynamic lesson on adding detail to writing. It has spanned two days of teaching, and I have covered the gamut. I have used mentored text. I have used my own illustrations. I have allowed more than enough time for the students to think through, talk through and share ideas. I have all the bells and whistles- anchor charts; word walls; alphabet and number charts; soft music. Nice sharp pencils, which I just barely finished sharpening this morning. In spite of the rush. The classroom has even been designed so as to be conducive to writing. We have a writing centre and various writing stations, but there are of course other spots in the room that a writer could settle down for a productive writing session. I can’t imagine what stone I have left unturned.

“Okay, everyone!” I urge. “Let’s get writing!”

And with that send-off, I see the students scatter into all four corners of the room, ready to write. And I think to myself…”what a wonderful—”

…wait a minute.

All but one has settled down for that intended writing session. There is always one.

In a matter of minutes, I can see that the best laid plans are still only plans. For this little writer has not been inspired to write today much more than a scribble. And when I approach and ask why, I am met with a bit of defiance. A little bit of defensiveness.

And some little feet propped up on the table.

This was not what I envisioned the writing session to be.

No not at all.  Rather, I had pictures in my mind of children, heads bent low over papers, hands moving furiously. But never did I conjure up images of students sitting back, smug looks on their faces. Telling me “I’m done” after three minutes have barely passed since the send-off.
This is not what my ideal vision would be under any circumstance.

I approach the student quickly and ask how the story is unfolding, as we have spent considerable time developing the idea for this book that he is making. He points to a circle on the page. I ask what it represents. “A circle,” he says smugly.  I am not ready to admit defeat, so I probe further.

“What is it suppose to be?” I ask.

He looks at me and shrugs.

“A circle,” he repeats.

I know and he knows- that the story he had told me he would working on today was about a movie he had seen over March Break. He had left our gathering place on the blue rug with ‘next steps’ already in place. But here we are- with circles that look more like scribbles than they do circles. And these ‘circles’ are covering his page.

It’s easy to forget that teaching, like all of life, is not about us. It’s not always a rejection of what we hold near and dear to our hearts when plans fail to follow through. Sometimes, it’s just that people are different. Some of us enjoy writing. And some of us do not.

I later talk to this student’s mom about our writing session, and in the process I realize a few things.

I really like this boy. A lot. And the more I try to understand him, the more I realize I can accept him: just as he is.
• I need to work harder at helping this student see the value in writing. If what we are doing is not connecting, there needs to be another way. Another approach taken.
• This student is more than just a would-be writer. He is a comedian, a reader, a brother, a son. He is a strong personality with the ability to stand his ground. He isn’t easily persuaded. He has resolve. This child is going to be fine- so what if he decided this week to just draw circles? Next week might be a whole different ball game.

Which brings me back to my first question: what’s love got to do with it all?

There are many aspects of my job that I am required to do. I am required to deliver curriculum. I am required to teach certain skills and knowledges. I am required to prepare my students to enter the next grade- the next level. The next unit. I am required to look after my students in their parents’ absence. Overall, I am required to begin preparing them for life. Real life.

But in all the descriptors that I have been given, no one has ever required of me to love them. Interesting, really. Their parents have much the same job as mine, but love is always underlying the relationship. Why is this so? And why is it not something we think that we as educators should be compelled to feel as well?

In spite of this fact, I find that love happens anyway. We come to love our students, in spite of ourselves. In spite of the odds. They wrap themselves around our hearts and we are not easily able to let them go. We think about them after the buses pull out of the parking lot. We consider their needs as we prepare lessons for the next day. We care about their lives as we make after-hours phone calls. We enjoy when we run into them at Wal-mart on the weekend.

We end up loving them. We really do.

Because in the midst of teaching and facilitating and preparing and instructing, I find myself caring about the students I teach. In the midst of guiding and disciplining and leading my students in key areas of fundamental learning areas, I find myself empathizing with them. In offering to assist them during writing workshops, I find myself coming to understand them better. In watching them discover key math principles, I find myself delighting in their learning- appreciating the young wonder that is a five-year old mind. In listening to their stories- as told by them and by their families, by their parents: I find myself coming to love these children. As if they were my very own.

I can’t get them out of my heart. It’s about love, really.

And even though I am passionate about writing and reading and math and science- and passionate about learning in general: I am more passionate about people. And I have come to believe that my calling is relationship, not teaching. The teaching is secondary to my calling to connect and relate and commune with those little people who show up in my room every day. It’s about reaching my students through relationship so that I might later on influence them to use their learning to develop their own relationships with people they trust. So that they might come to see that getting an education is about finding ways to connect with people in the world around them. So that they can thrive and flourish in this wild and beautiful life we have been blessed to live.

It’s about using the learning of writing so that they can then encourage, persuade, inspire, motivate and compel.
It’s about using the learning of math so that they can then reason, problem solve, analyze and explain.
It’s about using science to wonder, imagine, discover, uncover, explore and investigate.
It’s about using social studies to remember, consider, understand, appreciate and recollect.
It’s about making school a place that we learn the art of relating to people so that we can use the knowledge and skills we learn there in that place we call school- so that we can then go out into the big, wide world we live in with other people, and use those skills to better the world around us.

So that we can transform the world through love.

Through LOVE.

So you see, love has everything to do with it. Without love as the basis for learning, how are students to then know that love underlies everything we do? Everything we learn? Everything in life?  Love is everything.

And love has everything to do with it. For without love, writing is just a subject. It’s just writing.  So is reading and math.  They are just a skeleton.  Love makes them whole.  Breathes life into them and makes them come alive.

We will have more writing sessions much like the one I have described above. I realize this. I am no naïve fool.
But what else I understand- what I know for sure about our future sessions is this: I teach people, not subjects.  I teach boys and girls, not writing.  I teach human beings full of potential and wonder and possibility.

So when we have those kinds of days, we’re going to get through them. Together.  And always through the power of love.

Love them more…

There are few things in life compared to the intensity of a mother’s (father’s) love for a child.  Falling in love is full of wonder.  The joy of friendship a gift.  The feeling of being a cherished son or daughter- a comfort and a consolation. But the love one feels for their child is without compare. It is raw in complexity.  Primeval. Complicated yet so very simple.

Understanding this kind of love has opened up a whole world of relational connection for me- as a parent, a friend; as a child myself of two loving parents. Whom I still look to as stalwart pillars in my life.  And I understand this connection of relational love in my role as a wife, sister, aunt; and further, as a teacher to kindergarten students.  For each of these roles allows me a glimpse into these various worlds of love.

With reference to the connections I feel as a teacher, loving my own four children has allowed me a window of opportunity in my professional life to briefly glimpse inside other parents’ lives and the love they feel for their children.  It has allowed me the rare opportunity to identify with the parents who twice yearly sit nervously across from me- waiting for the fate of their child’s academic journey to be revealed. And this position of privilege is not one I treat lightly.  I am all too aware of my accountability to the ones I represent.  I realize that I have a position of responsibility.

I remember when Parent-Teacher Interviews first became a challenge for me as a parent.  A bit of an anxiety. I remember when hot words stung me like a bee’s venom.  I remember, for I am still there, sitting on a small chair at a semi-circled table: listening as words are flung at me, defining my beloved child.  Words that might well have been true.  In a certain context.  For we all have moments when the guard rails are lowered and we reveal thoughts and feelings in less than savory ways.  We all have moments when we speak words about the ones we love in ways that are truthful, yet harsh.  Moments usually defined by a lack of patience or understanding, if we were to be honest.  And if these same words had been spoken lovingly in truth, by me- the mother (as within private conversation with a close ally or best friend- someone who understood the child I was referring to…), well, I could understand them better. But in this context, to hear words like “rude”, “ignorant” and “bold”- they just seemed ill-chosen, hurtful and insensitive, especially when delivered in the sterile vacuum of an empty school classroom.

It took me a few moments to register that this was my child we were talking about- not someone elses’ kid.  This was my child the teacher was labeling as problematic.  This was my child she seemed to have a general distaste for.  My child she seemed to think was an issue.  This was my child.

My child??

And I know my child well.  Believe you me.  It is not that he, or any one of them, for that matter, are perfect.  They are not, as I am not.  As none of us are.  But to hear words used so loosely compelled me to believe that the essence of my child had been ignored.  Had been left unheard.  Unnoticed.  And while this child can at times be rude and ignorant and bold (it’s true)- he is also patiently kind when talking with his grandparents.  Is meticulous in manners and etiquette when out in public. Is thoughtful and careful to please family and friends.  Is loving in understated ways. Is helpful.  And compassionate.  And above all, is my beloved child. Is my beloved child!  Whom I love regardless of those moments when he slips from the path, errs from being/living up to his ‘best self’.

It is love that defines our relationship- not a narrowly constructed set of terms used carelessly to define him.

As a teacher, I am careful to use words that are kind.  I want to weigh my choice of words against the ways in which those words might be received.  For I realize that once a word has been spoken, it can never be retrieved.  It is gone out into the atmosphere to be swallowed up by ears that are ready to receive.  Ears that are waiting to hear.

This is not to say that words cannot speak truth.  I am in no way saying that we must withhold truth to protect the hearer.  There are words that need to be spoken.  Need to be said.  There are words that must be offered.  Because they lift, support, aid and assist the hearer in understanding the truth.  So that they can go forward and become a better person for having heard.  For having listened.  But the ways in which we offer our words- our presentation.  Our pitch.  Our tone.  Our voice.  All these work together to influence the receiver in understanding what the true message is.  Is it the message?  Or is it the underlying message that is being heard?

For me that day, in that empty classroom with nothing but books to separate me from her, the message I heard spoken across the divide was this: “Your child is a problem.  And I don’t like him enough to see through the behaviors- all I see are the issues.  And those issues are also becoming a problem too.”

Had the words been spoken in another way, delivered in kindness and compassion, perhaps this one Parent-teacher interview among many might not have left such a significant, lasting impression in my memory.  Had the words been cushioned in love perhaps they might have been easier to swallow.  Like a pill smothered in honey. Not to say I couldn’t swallow that pill otherwise- it’s just that it would have been an inconsequential pill for me to take had it been done in a caring manner.

Instead, it became a mountain of pills to ingest.  A mountain of words to absorb.

When the words are fitly chosen, it is at times a pleasure to be the listener.  A joy.  It builds the hearer up to greater capacity- to greater possibility.  It builds bridges. Mends fences.  Words chosen to affirm and encourage are the lifeblood of our relationships with people- particularly people outside of our closest circles of influence.  And without the cushion of intimacy, as afforded in an intimate relationship such as a parent-child relationship, words that harm and wound have no place.  And they certainly have no place in our professional vocabulary.  Particularly as it concerns the children.

Especially when it concerns children.

******************************************************************************************************************

I sit across from them- the many parents I have the privilege of working alongside in the development of their children’s academic, social and emotional well-being.  And I breathe.  Exhaling out anything that might hinder this important conversation.  For I feel the responsibility of what will be said over the course of the next twenty-minutes.  And I realize this for sure: nothing I say will ever make that parent love their child any less.  And some of which I choose to speak can open the door for both of us- both me and them: to come to understand and love those same beloved children even more.

To love them even more.

Love and labels…

When he was a little boy, he was never called gifted.  He never went to formal school.  He was a Down’s baby.  Not a baby or child with Down Syndrome, among other distinguishing characteristics. Not a child with exceptionalities.  Not a person with special abilities.  No.  He wasn’t all that.  He was mostly a label.  To his extended family- a bit of an embarrassment.  But to his Daddy, Mother and Sisters- a little boy to love.  A brother.  A child.

A human being.

Today we are very careful, for the most part, to avoid labeling human beings in our speech and dialogue.  It has become a bit of a political issue, in part.  A bit of a cultural taboo.  But although we don’t outwardly label per say in our public conversations (particularly in our professional ones), we still internally characterize people based on distinguishing features.  How large or small they are.  The color of their hair.  How tall or short.  How light or dark their skin color.  And in more careful ways, we distinguish people based on race, gender and class stereotypes, among other classifications, so as to compare and contrast. So as to distinguish and remember.  And at times, so as to stereotype.

Within school settings, this classification system is certainly apparent.  We level children based on reading and writing abilities, we stream them according to academic or more generalized capabilities. We offer modifications and adaptations according to learning abilities.  And we individualize programming where warranted. We’ve gotten very good at classifying students.  Boxing them into their little slots.  But the one thing we aren’t so good at is blurring the lines that separate.  We have a hard time taking people at heart value- never mind face value.  We have a hard time seeing the human being inside the `casing`, if you will.  And sometimes I wonder if we at the school level are really helping anyone at all.  Throwing around medical/academic labels and soaking up diagnosis.  Trying to fit everyone into boxes.

There are two ways of approaching this issue of classifying people (particularly students as people): personally and generally.  When I think of the issue of classification in schools as a teacher (or by way of a teacher`s perspective), in allowing each student their distinctive category of existence, I see that it gives individuality to the child.  It helps us see them for who they are as well as support them in their specific needs.  Being able to support children in specific ways levels the playing field.  It allows children of varying abilities to all get whatever they need (academically, physically, emotionally) to grow and develop into wonderful, unique human beings.  This is why schools whole-heartedly endorse inclusion in education.  Because school should ideally be a place for everyone.  Regardless of ability.  Because of ability.  And teachers should be very good at meeting students where they are at.  At seeing potential in kids.  At helping them achieve their personal best.  At assisting them to strive for higher and more.

Thus, teachers then often utilize labels to assist their students in gaining access to supports within the school setting so as to allow them opportunities that might not be afforded them otherwise.

The other way to approach the issue of labeling is personally.  As a parent.  A mother or father.  A sister or brother.  When labeling becomes personal, there are a whole host of things to think about.  First of which is seeing the child as the person the adult or caregiver unconditionally loves.  Because this child is someone they have dreams and hopes for.  Someone they want the absolute best for.  And when they see this child, they do not see the label first.  They see the person.  The possibility.  The potential.  And true, they know that diagnosis and classification are part of becoming human in the literal sense, in the spiritual sense- these little people in their care and wrapped around their hearts are already realized potential.  They are already the whole package.  There isn’t anything about them needed to make them more `worthy of love`- they already are loved.  A diagnosis, a label or any other way of classifying these little and big people with exceptional abilities won’t change how much they are truly loved.

When you love someone, you react to labeling in different ways.  Some embrace it as a means of hope.  Others repel it as a means of differentiating.  Labeling can met with both reactions at one and the same time.  The thing is: you love this person.  And you want the best for that loved one. Is that best achieved via a label?  Is that best better off without a label? Hard questions to answer.

And for the teacher, we must be extremely sensitive to this dilemma.  Because while it might be prudent for efficiency and streamlining- for services: to have a child labelled.  For the parent, it is a fragile decision which they must weigh heavily.  Against the individuality and unique person-hood of their child.

As a teacher, I am becoming more and more romanced with the notion that we are more alike than we are different.  I must preface this with an acknowledgment of the fact that I certainly realize and am sensitive to the truth that we are indeed different by virtue of the fact we are unique, special people.  By virtue of the fact that we are unique human beings.  But within that thought is an even lovelier one that compels me to think thus.  We are similar by the very same token.  We are similar to one another by virtue of all the qualities that make us human- our emotions, our feelings, our biology, our chemistry, our spirituality. We are the same by virtue of the fact that we have so much in common.

We all bleed red blood.  We all breathe in air.  We all need nourishment and fluids. We all need love.

Sometimes as teachers we try to express this need for recognition of the similarity and it gets misunderstood to be an over-generalization.  In other words, if I were to say that all children were exceptional- by virtue of the fact that they are all human beings and  ALL HUMAN BEINGS ARE THUS EXCEPTIONAL!  It might get misconstrued to read: “All children are the same and should be treated the same.  Every time.  Period.” Which is certainly not what I would want to express by saying all children are exceptional. Not at all.

What I would really be saying in that statement is this:  all children are fundamentally human beings.  That is our label.  It is our essential label.  It is what unites us together as people.  We are the same in that we are all part of this thing called humanity.  And as part of humankind, we are all alike in many, many ways.  One way of which is that we are all exceptional.  We are all gifted in different ways.  We all have abilities. It is our exceptionalities- our own unique bent toward being ‘able’, if you will, that make us different.  We are all able and dis/able in different areas.  And that is also what makes us similar and different at one and the same time.  The fact that we all have these similarities makes us same.  The fact that we are all different in these similarities makes us us the same.

We are similar by the very things that make us different.

Which leads us back to the original theme: to label or to not label- that is the question.  What does it achieve?  Do the key stakeholders in that label have a voice?  Does being labelled get them something they need that they otherwise would not have?  Is that label a comfortable one?  And if not, why must it be used?  Does it create division or does it bring them closer to being the same?  Is this important (to be similar)?  And if not, why not?  Is it important to be different?  And if so, why is this so?

In the end, we can wear our labels only for so long.  Because when it comes down to being essentially human, that label really doesn’t make much difference.  We don’t need it to be loved.  To be cherished.  We don’t need it to be a brother or sister.  A child that is loved. A human being. And perhaps that is what levels the playing field in the end.

Love.

For true love eliminates the need for labels by virtue of its existence. And it does so once and for all.  Bringing us together under its all encompassing umbrella of humanity.  Bringing us together in hope.

The Seven Tenents of Love Put into Practice

I am seeking to make my own journey in education one that is characterized by love.  By empathy and kindness.  By an overriding influence of Care.  In order to have a Curriculum of Love as the guiding light within our classrooms, we must acknowledge that we are part of a vast connection of interconnections- even within the borders and boundaries of our own four walls.  That is, within our classrooms there are children and students representing much diversity and much difference.  We are very much the same even while we are uniquely different and special. As educators, we must never lose sight of this tension: the fine line between similarity and difference.  While I am similar to you by virtue of the fact that we are human beings, I am different from you by the very same token- no two human beings has ever been- nor ever will be- exactly the same.  We hold this tension carefully in our hands as educators, never losing sight of the awesome responsibility it is to recognize our students for their individuality and complexity.  Along with their connected humanness.

In Becoming Human, by Christian philosopher Jean Vanier’s (1998), he proposes seven aspects of love for educators that will transform the heart.  This kind of love that he speaks of is an antidote for fear (those fears expressed by both teachers and students) that are found inside our classrooms. Curriculum theorist and poet Carl Leggo, writing in his relevatory essay called Living Love- Confessions of Fearful Teacher, echoes this sentiment that educators need to address and understand these aspects of love so that they might in turn transform their classrooms from the inside out.  In Leggo’s paper, he outlines Vanier’s tenets of a curriculum founded on love, for he sees them as the guiding hand of direction.  Those aspects are: revelation, understanding, communication, celebration, empowerment, communion and forgiveness.  I will include Leggo’s thoughts on each tenet as well as attempt to explain them in brief by way of elaborating on how I see them personally expressed within my own classroom.

To love is to reveal.

Leggo asserts that we need to tell each other our secrets because all the human family has the same secrets.  In being transparent, we seek to live out a text of openness that is based on love.  As teachers, we need to show our students our frailties. We are not always feeling happy. Not always feeling joy.  A few months ago, after a particularly difficult morning getting away from the house, I was on my way to school with my four daughters in tow when I broke a tooth eating a piece of raisin bread toast.  And I did so because I have a habitual problem with grinding out all my concerns on my poor permanent teeth throughout the course of my sleep.  This was the fourth tooth to break in two years.  Breaking that tooth was the proverbial last straw for me that morning, even at the early hour of 8:30 a.m.  Everything came crashing down on me: the stressors of work and home and school.  The difficulties I was having in a few key relationships.  The tensions of raising four children.  The stress of everyday living.  And when I got to school and met the principal at the door, I just lost it.  In front of all the children.  In front of every one.  And while I quickly ushered myself into a far corner of the school to “cry it out”, out of the view of curious eyes, I still had to face the children one last time before taking the day off on “stress-leave;” I had to face them so as to explain to them why Mrs. Gard was losing her marbles.  I told them in as simple terms as I could muster that Mrs. Gard would be taking the day off work because she had broke her tooth.  And unlike five and six-year olds who want to lose their teeth, Mrs. Gard herself did not wish to lose any more teeth than she already had.  At a most alarming rate, nonetheless.  This was most definitely not a celebration for the tooth fairy but a time for recuperation. They got that- it was not lost on them.  And in time, they would remind me of the day I broke my tooth- and all because I was willing to reveal to them my humanness.

To love is to understand.

Canadian poet Margaret Avison (2002) says “there’s too much of us/for us to know.”  We thus open our minds and we open our hearts to understanding each other so that we can begin to know and be aware of our complexity as human beings.  We must begin somewhere.  bell hooks (2003)  says love in the classroom calls teachers and students to open their hearts and minds.  As a teacher, one of my greatest challenges and privileges has been to understand my students.  I am drawn to understanding like a moth is drawn to light.  I think it is one of life’s greatest mysteries- the unfolding of our personality and character through conversation and shared life experiences.  Each of my students is unique and whole, and the challenge lies in uncovering their gifts and capacities.  My recent blog about one student I’ve named K. is a great illustration of my own discovery of his person.  It is through understanding that we truly come to love one another.

To love is to communicate.

With communication comes community and communion.  We often think of communion as the breaking of bread around a communal table, and certainly that is part of it.  One of the most relaxing parts of my day as classroom teacher to four, five and six year olds has been our shared lunch time meal.  I’ve arranged our tables to form a block so that we are face-to-face with one another.  The conversation is rich with laughter, conversation and joy.  There is usually lots of silliness- compatible with the sense of humor of this age group!  In learning to live together we must be committed to learning to communicate with one another.  We share the joy and the sorrow, as I have already expressed in the aspect of love that concerns itself with revelation.  Overall, a focus on love is a commitment to living together and learning to communicate with one another.  Communication allows us to understand one another better.

To love is to celebrate.

We celebrate with joy and engagement.  And certainly classrooms need to be places for celebration, laughter, acknowledgement of joys, and commendation of individual self-worth.  When I started teaching kindergarten, I knew that I wanted to develop a writers’ workshop for my students so that they could discover the joy of writing that I have come to love so very much myself.  I worked closely with a Literacy coach to find the best approach.  One thing she felt strongly about was that writing needs to be celebrated.  Even if it is as small as the sharing of stories on the blue rug: there must be time for each student to showcase their work so as to experience that thrill of pride that comes with accomplishment.  I celebrate all of my writers.  In fact, recently I took part in a three day in-service on writing in which I spoke about my writers’ workshop program with teachers from all across the Island.  And the writers that I wanted to acknowledge first and foremost were my struggling writers.  Theirs’ were the stories I shared prominently.  The pages of their books are filled with seemingly in descript scribbles and wordless text- but it is writing to them.  And it is writing to me.  And I enthusiastically celebrate their amazing accomplishments.

To love is to empower:   

Leggo writes that love seeks transformation- an ongoing process of creative change.  Love calls out the gifts in others.  And each of our students comes to school with their own unique talents and abilities. We as teachers must seek opportunity to empower our students- so that they believe all is possible, even from the greatest of possibilities down to the small.  Whether we empower them academically or emotionally, as teachers we find a passion in our calling to make that impactful difference in the lives of our students so that they are then able to leave their own mark on the world.  Often, the most powerful expression of empowerment in my classroom is by way of our words.  I have a five year old student in my classroom right now who came to me with limited speech.  Throughout the course of the year, she has found her voice.  And she uses her voice now as a means of expression, assertion, connection and relationship.  Even for my students who have no ‘voice’, in the conventional sense of the expression, they have still been empowered to speak and relate to others through the methods available to them: communication devices, PECS, sign language and body language.  To communicate is a form of empowerment.  And I am learning to be more aware of each student and how they can access this source of self-expression.

To love is to be in communion with one another. 

We recognize the ‘otherness’ of each person- each unique individual, and we acknowledge the connections we have with each other by way of this recognition.  According to Leggo, we need to learn to tell our stories to one another, practice an ethic of love along with forming loving relationships with one another.  And it is through trust in each other and love of each other that we find the antidote to fear.  Trust and love go hand in hand.  We must not fear each others’  ‘otherness’.  And though trust is harder to come by as we get older and more ‘wordly’, it is often a naturally, effusive response when one is five.  I am often amazed at how trusting- at how innocent their faith in us as adults often is.  They have trusted me with their most private secrets- sometimes outright hilarious, sometimes sweetly sentimental and at other times, heartbreakingly sad.  I will never forget the stories my students have told me and the ways in which they have expanded my thinking about what it means to become human.  The process itself is one which breathes life and love into this accepting heart.

To love is to forgive. 

We think at the same time as we open up our hearts.  And thinking is often what stalls us in the act of forgiveness- we remember.  We have a hard time forgetting.  The mind holds captive secrets that are hidden in deep recesses of the heart. But we learn to forgive – first ourselves, so that we in turn can forgive others.  And in the process, we find that we are able to better understand that love can compensate for a multitude of errors.  In becoming a teacher, I had to learn to forgive those in my past who formed deeply felt impressions of what education was all about- conformation, mind control and thought policing.  I had to forgive the very ones who hurt me most.  And I had to forgive so as to learn to love.  I am convinced that I am the kind of teacher I am today because of the painful experiences I went through as a child and teenager.  I have learned to forgive, and in the process I have come to understand, even if only minutely, what it means to love.

Carl Leggo asserts that in order to live fearlessly, we must learn to live in and with love.  What I love about kindergarten is the fearlessness I find in students learning at this level.  The fears are there, true.  But by and large, there is no shame in fear at this level.  Perhaps that is what it is- a lack of shame.  For there is great belief in one’s ability. How is it that we lose this ethereal quality as we grow in number of years?  There is something so beautiful and hopeful about a five year old mind.  And it is in great part those minds which have taught me much of what I know for sure about love and what it really means for this simple teacher to become human.  To become all I was meant to be.

To be fearless in love.

When teachers choose love…

It’s almost recess and I am urging the children to put away their snacks so as to ready for the recess bell.  The students start slowly stowing their lunch boxes inside their backpacks and heading for the door.  All except for one, that is.  The same One who, day after day, has persisted in waiting until the last possible minute to head out the door.  The same One who made us all late for our school-wide outside activities.  The same One who has been persistently and consistently slow to dress for outdoor recess the whole year.  He can’t get his boots on.  Can’t zipper up his coat.  Can’t find his mittens.  Doesn’t know how to do the button on his pants.

And it has not been for lack of trying to help him on my part.  I’ve investigated this situation extensively.  From the very first of the year, I knew that this student would be special.  No, there is no diagnosis for this exceptionality.  There is no underlying medical or psychological reason to offer as explanation.  This student is otherwise happy and carefree.  But in the aspect of self-care skills and independence, he has exhibited an obvious lagging behind the others.  It is something I have worked with him on continuously throughout the year, as well tried to understand through ongoing conversations with family around what we could do as a team to support this student in his personal growth.

But today, we are no father ahead than we’ve ever been.

Right now, it is recess.  And I have umpteen dozen things to do.  The first of which is use the bathroom.  And I want this little guy to “hurry up” and get himself out the door to join all the other children in the school for a refreshing run around the snow-covered playground.  Goodness knows, after weeks of indoor recess, we all need some fresh air and room to move.  And in my head, I know there is no reason why he can’t get ready as quickly as all the other children.

“C’mon, K.” I urge.  “Everyone else is out there.  You need to get moving.  The bell has rung.”

K. is not moving.  In fact, he is sprawled out on the floor, his clothing and footwear spread out in disarray.  I feel the irritation welling up inside me.  I really want to say, “Look Buddy.  It’s March.  Every other one of your classmates can dress themselves without much assistance or urging- why can’t you?  And don’t you know- I have better things to do than stand here walking you through each step of your dressing process?  Besides, it’s my Break too- and I have to go the bathroom!”

As it turns out, K. finally gets the last piece of clothing on just a minute or two before the bell rings to call everyone back in.  I tell K. that he will be in with me for lunch for having wasted the entire recess.  We’ll have a chat together then, but first- I need the cushion time to bring my irritation levels down.  It’s a good thing we have an hour and a half.

The lunch bell eventually rings, and I send K. to the gathering rug with every last article of his clothing, including his boots, while I supervise the others.  Who, by the way, are quickly out the door with only minimal help from me with a few zippers and mittens.  I take a deep breath and start to wonder.  What am I going to do/say to K. that will make a lasting impression?  My first instinct is to lecture about all the reasons why dressing independently and quickly is something he should be interested in: all his friends are doing it on their own, he is missing a great deal of his recess time each and every day- and furthermore, doesn’t he care that his teacher can’t get to the bathroom?  But I know that none of these reasons really matter a great deal to K.  I am going to have to get a little more creative.

At some point, between the door and joining K. on the rug, I realized something.  I realize something is missing in the way I am dealing with K. in this particular situation. It is a kind of a lagging skill of my own, to be truthful. For I realize that I am not showing K. the utmost of kindness and love that I know I have within me to give.  I am not choosing care.  Not choosing LOVE.  I am instead finding him inconvenient to my own wants and desires.  So at some point between the door and the rug, I make a choice: I choose love over irritation.   I choose kindness over frustration.  I choose to CARE.

And when love is the choice we make, everybody wins.  Every time.

I still realized I still had some teaching to do with K. before I could send him flying out the door to join the others.  I still had some fences to mend.  And I still hada few words of my own to say.  Here’s what happened next.

I slowly walked over to the rug, thinking fast on my feet as I made it the twenty steps to my little chair.  I didn’t want to waste this opportunity because I knew K. was listening to me for perhaps the first time that morning.

“K., how old are you now,” I asked.

“Six,” he said quietly.

“Six!” I said with awe and wonder. “Wow, K.!  You are so big.  You are growing so fast!  Tell me, what are some things you can do, now that you’ve turned six?” I asked, looking expectantly at him, supporting him with my tone of voice and my constant eye contact.  I lean my body towards his.

“Um, I can get dressed on my own…” he mumbles, still not sure where this conversation is going, but he thinks he might be on the right track.

“Yes,” I say, “but what ELSE can you do- you must be able to do so many things, now that you are six!  What kinds of things can six year-olds do?” I inquire again, looking more curious this second time I pose the question.

He thinks for a moment and then brightens.  Then, he starts to make a list.  I look at him encouragingly, nodding my head to show him I think his list is absolutely amazing.

After he finishes, I hold his eye contact for a moment.  And I tell him I am impressed with his prowess at so many six-year-old accomplishments.  Then I ask, still supporting him with my choice of tone and body language, “Do you think now that you are six you might be able to get dressed all by yourself?”

At this point in the conversation, he realizes this is not going to be a detention conversation any longer- this is a real conversation now.  He no longer feels any pressure.  No shame weighs him down.

He looks up at me and eagerly nods his head in agreement.

“Well,” I say with a wide smile, “I wonder- could you ever show me how fast you can get dressed- I bet you are super-quick now that you are six!”

He looks excited for the challenge.  With the vigor of an Olympic athlete, he starts tearing into the pile of clothing.  Then he comes over to me for help with a button; to which, I show him how the two ends fit together and he promptly does it himself.  Two minutes later, he is completely dressed.

I smile at him proudly.

“Look at you!” I marvel.  “You are all dressed- and you did it yourself!  Go on outside- and have fun!”

K. turns on his heels and is out the door in two seconds flat.

And I am left sitting on a little green chair in an empty elementary classroom with the hopeful realization: that love is a choice.  And when we choose love, we all win.

Because love supports.  Love lifts.  And love lets us fly with the wings of an eagle.

This is What Teachers Must Remember Most About Their Students

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Dear Counselor Down the Hall:

In December, before the busy rush of Christmas, before the calm of early January (after the seasonal chaos), before the press of semester changes and reporting periods and term-end assessments and all that entails: I wrote a letter. My letter was written to a young teacher and it was concerning what students remember most about teachers. I said in that letter that I believe students will remember mostly that we cared for them. They will remember us for our empathy and consideration. They’ll remember us for all the little and big ways in which we’ve touched their lives. Most of all, I urged teachers everywhere to consider their calling to ‘being’ over the compulsion to constantly ‘do’ all the time. For I believe that this work of teaching is a calling- not a job. As such, I said in that letter that teachers who were available, kind, compassionate, transparent, real, and thoughtful- teachers who were true to themselves- were the kinds of teachers we need more of in this world.

Since that quiet evening in December, when I tapped that letter out on a wobbly keyboard in my den, that same letter has been viewed by teachers and educators all over the world. Indeed, I have been completely humbled with the response. Humility has not been hard to manage because dozens of people found a spelling mistake in the letter right off the bat. We don’t look passed the mistakes of our students- we look past them. Who knew? What has really touched me as I have read the comments on this letter are the stories that have been shared. Stories are so powerful- they touch our lives in memorable ways. I feel blessed for having read so many peoples’ stories. I have also felt a sincere desire to connect with the people behind the comments written to me on my blog. One of those comments was from you- the counselor down the hall. Permit me to reiterate what you said to me in that letter:

It may be what students will remember most, however being authentic and caring in today’s classroom is not enough for the teacher to keep their job. I’m in a 95%+ high poverty school. Many of my students live in substandard housing (shelters, their cars, garages, even rest stops). Many are hungry, stressed, sad, angry. Many are not ready to learn or to access what their teachers have to offer because their basic needs are not being met. Common Core Standards are holding teachers accountable for learners’ growth and meeting benchmarks. That’s where all the focus is, if you want to stay employed as a teacher today. Oft times, children with significant and sometimes severe behavioral problems are included in general education settings but with no additional supports. The young teacher down the hall is carrying stress that experienced, seasoned teachers who’ve been in the field for years did not contend with in the beginning of their careers. Of course, being patient, kind and available to students is paramount, but we have to be forgiving and offer more support to teachers in the trenches. Platitudes on what students will remember most are not enough.From the counselor down the hall

I appreciate your thoughtful, careful response. I am really trying to listen hard to what you are saying- I am attempting to understand what that would be like to have those particular pressures weighing down on me, as do you- to be teaching students facing such overwhelming obstacles. You have incredible insight into the students you teach and counsel, and I applaud your tireless work. Know that what you do matters. Incredibly.

You allude to the fact that being patient, kind and available are not enough to make up for what is missing in supports for our young teachers just starting out: I agree. We need more supports and quickly. This need to support one another is something I feel with a sense of urgency. I hear your frustration, I hear your cry for help. But I do feel that there is still possibility for our students living in the direst of circumstances and that possibility is found in offering a curriculum of caring. Considering the lack of supports our young teachers in the trenches are dealing with, caring must begin with us- the seasoned teachers. And from there, it will be felt in waves as if radiating from a light source.

I still hold out hope that what students need from us most is care: relationship, empathy, time and love. And I also believe that this curriculum of care- this curriculum of the heart can be infused in our everyday classroom experience no matter how challenging that situation might be.

When I think of students dealing with issues of poverty, hunger, and stress brought on by many varied causes, I think we’d both agree that these are the students who need this curriculum of care the most urgently. These are the students who need teachers like you- teachers who can see through to the heart of the matter- that know what their students are up against and can meet them where they are at. Whom students need most are teachers that understand: students bring their best selves to school with them everyday. The ‘self‘ that left the house that morning without breakfast on the table (if there is indeed a table). The ‘self‘ that left the house that morning having just watched mom get pinned to the wall by dad. The ‘self‘ that got on the bus that morning wondering if anyone is even going to be there for them when they get home. Because life is that unpredictable. And that scary. So when I consider the teachers teaching students for whom life is lived in such fragile, difficult worlds, I think that those are the teachers given one of life’s greatest challenges, to be sure. For these teachers are teaching students who crave the security of the human touch. Because students want to feel safe. Want to feel cared for. Because students need the basic necessities of life, as you have indicated- and they need them before literacy and numeracy goals are ever going to be their central preoccupation.

It’s about the curriculum of the heart- first and foremost. That’s what lays the foundation for the rest.

I would be remiss if I failed to speak to our responsibility as educators to teach. I am no idler in my own calling to teach, often taking weekends and evenings to work in quiet classrooms in a vacant school, preparing lessons. But as much as I love teaching language arts, social studies, science and math (among other areas of inquiry) to my young group of learners, I am constantly cognizant of these same students’ readiness to learn- along with the more pressing realities of their everyday lives. I get that sense you might be compelled in similar ways. I am also aware that everyday life issues sometimes are more pressing an area of need than is core curriculum. I am aware that, to the child who hasn’t eaten breakfast, teaching math concepts is not really going to deliver. Nor is a guided reading lesson the salve for an injury that inflicts the soul.

I am aware. For I read the room constantly to see if there is anything more pressing, any issue of greater concern that might need more attention than the subject of the hour. For as much as I am passionate about what I teach, I am more passionate about the people I teach. I am more interested that they are content and happy- that they are not under undue duress or strain; what is the point of spouting out facts and figures, as important as they might be, if the students’ heart is not in it? If their belly is empty? If their mind is consumed with images they cannot erase? What is the point of pushing through lessons if what the students are needing in the moment is a caring, attentive ear? I believe that we as teachers know this to be true with every fiber of our being. We must remain true to our students and to our original calling.

What matters to the students is how we care.

And what our students need above all is empathic, devoted teachers like you that know when to teach- and know when to listen. Who realize that curriculum from the heart is more influential than any core curriculum can ever hope to offer. And while platitudes on what students need might not be enough to change the system, it has been enough to change the hearts of teachers.

One person at a time.

All the best my friend,

The Teacher Down the Hall